Des Conway has over 20 years' experience in police and commercial security. He uses his additional research and commercial security experience to ensure his own and his family's safety while planning and taking holiday and business trips. Through this and his other security handbooks he is committed to helping people keep themselves and their loved ones safe, wherever they are.
Public transport includes using commercial public service to undertake a journey. This includes:
For every thousand journeys made, there are far more accidents and injuries suffered by private motorists than by public transport passengers. This means that in the UK, statistically, travelling by public transport is a hundred times safer than using your own car.
Other than terrorist attacks, the main risks associated with trains are accident. assault and theft, but these can be discussed in a variety of ways.
It is worth remembering that public transport systems are by far the safest way to travel, even if you include the risk of terrorist attacks. Considering the number of rail journeys taken each day, the likelihood of anyone being involved in an incident is minute, even if you travel in a city targeted by terrorists.
However, this doesn’t mean that there is nothing you need to do to protect yourself. See the terrorism chapter for advice and discussion of terrorism countermeasures.
Though rail travel is heavily regulated, in recent years there have been a number of high-profile accidents and very old rolling stock is only just being phased out on some lines.
If there is a rail accident, you can be fairly sure that it will be serious. When a couple of hundred tons of train runs off the line or hits a broken rail, the tightly packed travellers inside are bound to suffer serious injury and possibly die.
Rail travellers are also susceptible to injury or death caused by train versus vehicle collisions and derailments. By the very nature of cross-country rail travel, the locations of railway accidents can often be inaccessible to emergency services, so the subsequent delay in rendering assistance usually leads to more fatalities than would have occurred if help could have got to the scene quicker and easier.
Robbery and assault
Criminal gangs have been known to attack rail services. They board the train as passengers, and then when the train is between stations and the passengers are helpless, the gang members run through the train assaulting and robbing passengers at will. When the tram pulls into the next station down the line the gang members get off and are gone before anyone can report the crime.
There is also a risk of robbery and assault on platforms and in railway subways. generally later at night. Passengers are also at risk of crimes to their person or to their vehicle in railway station car parks.
Statistically a traveller is unlikely to be the victim of an assault when travelling by train, and women are apparently even less likely to be assaulted when travelling by tram than men. but that is no reason to relax and let your guard down. There are criminals out there, don’t make life easy for them. Every single thing you can do to protect yourself makes you that much less likely to become the target of criminal activity.
Pickpockets usually operate in gangs and in crowds. Busy railway stations and carriages give them an excuse to jostle and push up against people. Seasoned commuters are so used to crowded conditions that they rarely take any notice of somebody bumping into them on a busy platform and pickpockets play on that. Though the movies often show pickpockets dipping into pockets and removing wallets, pickpockets today usually target bags worn on the back or over the shoulder. Because they are out of sight of the owner they are particularly vulnerable.
Travelling while struggling with several suitcases is a nightmare, but travelling with cases and children is worse. At least if you put a briefcase down it should stay where it is. Children can often be curious and adventurous. Many a parent has stopped to show their tickets, then found a child has wandered off while they were talking to the ticket inspector.
The worry of lost luggage, missed connections, delays and cancellations seems immaterial when you consider lost children, dangerous high-speed trains and electrified tracks – not to mention kidnap or worse!
Because the outcome could be particularly traumatic, I have included a few specific tips for travelling with children.
The main risks associated with underground trains are similar to those for surface trains. They are accident, assault, theft and terrorist attacks, so the train advice given above is applicable to underground trains too. However, there are a few specific problems that might be encountered on the underground services.
While rail accidents tend to be serious, underground accidents are infinitely worse, because the site of the accident is often so inaccessible. Fire or other incidents on a train in the tunnels is almost guaranteed to lead to fatalities. The tunnels and escalators act like chimneys drawing heat, smoke and flames to upper levels. Trains pushing fresh air through the tunnels constantly feed oxygen into the base of the fire, while emergency crews have difficulty approaching the fire because they have to come down through the very flames and smoke they have been sent to extinguish. Passenger unfamiliarity with the tunnels, poor signposting and lack of staff will all tend to make a tube fire infinitely worse than a surface fire, because there is no simple emergency exit door you can open to leave the scene and reach cold fresh air.
Newer trains have a functional public address system and some are fitted with electronic displays through which the driver or guard can pass information to passengers. Ordinarily these systems are used to announce the arrival at a given station, or declare that an escalator is out of use, but in an emergency they can quickly and efficiently pass on life-saving information to passengers.
Criminal gangs have also been known to attack underground services. As with surface trains, they can run through the train assaulting and robbing passengers at will. When the train pulls into the next station the gang members get off and are gone in a maze of tunnels and different lines before anyone can report the crime. Though police are targeting these criminals and CCTV coverage is improving, there are limited resources. Pickpockets also operate on the crowded commuter services, freely helping themselves to wallets and purses in overcrowded carriages.
There is also a risk associated with falling off the platform in front of a train, or onto the live electric rail. When stations become dangerously overcrowded, staff will close them. Closing the station stops more people coming onto the crowded platform. but that still leaves the early arrivals on dangerously overcrowded platforms.
It would be easy for somebody at the back of a platform to trip and push into somebody, initiating a wave of movement and pressure that could push somebody at the front of the platform off the edge and onto the track. Unfortunately it has been known for drunks, people in a drugged state or the mentally ill to deliberately push people onto the track.
Buses and Coaches
The main risks associated with bus travel are accident, assault and theft, and possible terrorist attacks.
Though there is a range of legislation and regulations associated with the standard and quality of the maintenance of public service vehicles, mistakes are made. The simple dynamics of an accident are that the occupants of the largest vehicle involved in an accident are better protected and suffer fewer injuries than people in a smaller vehicle. As buses and coaches are so big, they tend to suffer least in accidents with cars and vans. However, in an accident involving a lorry, the bus or coach will come off worst.
Protection. Modern cars are designed to have a rigid passenger compartment, which is engineered to protect the driver and passengers. Buses and coaches were engineered with commercial principles in mind.
Light construction meant that there was less weight to carry around and so a vehicle used less fuel. Larger window areas allowed the passengers to have a better view during the trip and so attracted more passengers.
All of these matters legitimately maximised profits, but weakened the structure, leaving passengers open to death and serious injury resulting from even minor accidents. Modern coaches use modern materials and engineering to combine strength with good passenger views.
Seat belts. Older coaches do not have passenger seat belts. Major accidents have resulted in a review of coach and bus safety, but the improvements are only now appearing. New-generation buses and coaches have safety cages, reinforced body frames and seat belts, but thousands of older-generation buses and coaches are still on the road and will be for years to come.
Upper deck dangers. Double-deck buses have been known to leave their designated route then try to pass under low bridges or drive under low trees, with devastating and potentially fatal results to top-deck passengers.
Robbery. Criminals have been known to target bus passengers and crews. They often operate in gangs who board a bus at a carefully selected stop and intimidate the crew and passengers. They steal everything they can and then jump off the bus at the next junction or stop. Criminals have been known to resort to unnecessary violence, for example stabbing passengers who were no threat to them.
Traffic risk. Passengers on the old open platform double-deck buses have been known to jump off the bus between stops and be hit by a car.
The tram and trolley bus system is making an urban comeback. As a cost-effective method of moving people it has been rediscovered, along with environmental benefits. Tram systems are often electrically operated, reducing or eliminating noxious fumes and emissions. However, they also bring their own unique hazards. The main risk associated with tram travel is accidental collision.
Accidental collision. Trams and trolleys usually operate on a rail system, similar to those used by trains. Unlike trains, the tram rails are laid in and along and beside public roads. The risk and threat comes from several different sources.
Trams cannot swerve to avoid an accident. Most car drivers don’t realise how much they drift from lane to lane, and how much other car drivers accommodate their bad habit by avoiding them. When a car or van driver drifts into the path of a tram, a collision is almost inevitable because the tram driver simply cannot swerve to avoid them.
Finally, because trams and vehicles co-exist on city streets, it is not unknown for tram passengers to be knocked down by other vehicles when they are attempting to board or leave trams.
Few people travel by ferry now, and even fewer do so regularly. That makes a ferry particularly dangerous because the chances are that on any given day most of the passengers will be unfamiliar with the ferry’s operation. The main risks associated with ferry travel are accident and subsequent drowning.
Accident. Ferries operate over substantial bodies of water, where the presence of deep water, currents and tides are major hazards. Passengers and vehicles boarding a ferry will have to negotiate the hazards associated with docks and jetties. Lack of familiarity with the whole process, location and operation make it even more dangerous for the average person. Being directed along docks and down metal ramps into the vehicle deck of a ferry can be scary in itself Though they usually erect safety barriers to prevent it. human error and a confused driver can easily see a car take a plunge into deep water.
Then there is the risk that the terry itself could be involved in a fire or other accident. Ferries have been holed and sunk, and have capsized after collisions and car-deck flooding. Even though there will be no trouble for a thousand trips. you have to be ready for that one time when there is a disaster. By remaining alert and being familiar with emergency equipment and procedures you could turn a potential disaster into a mere problem, as well as saving your life and the lives of other passengers.
Protection. UK ferries operate within strict rules. They are required to carry lifejackcts, ratts, tire-fighting equipment, etc. All members of the crew should also be familiar with the use and deployment of all safety equipment and should take problems seriously and professionally.
Abroad it is very different. If I boarded a ferry where there were problems, for example if crew members couldn’t speak English, or they appeared to be less than competent or ignoring their duties, I would leave the ferry and report my observations to the authorities.
Transport: Safety Demonstrations and Cards
Be aware that when you travel you are in unfamiliar surroundings and your unfamiliarity with those surroundings makes them that much more dangerous to you. If you know a venue and know your way around it, you will be more comfortable, more confident, happier and safer. You will know where the toilets are, where the lifts are and more importantly where the exits, ramps and stairs are. At the same venue, a stranger will be lost, they will have to follow the crowd or aim for different signposted facilities. Their unfamiliarity with it makes the venue that much less safe for the stranger.
Be alert to unfamiliar dangers such as escalators and moving walkways. Don’t trip over carelessly placed luggage. Look out for hazards such as ride-on motorised cleaning machines or luggage trains that may be moving around in a large terminal or port.
If there are safety notices, take the time to read them. Take the opportunity to double check your tickets and travel documents while in the queue, be informed and be safe. Don’t flash that wad of cash or traveller’s cheques – your fellow travellers or others around you may be criminals.
When you eventually board your aircraft or ship or train, listen to the safety announcements. Watch the safety video, the demonstrations of available exits and any demonstrations of such things as lifejackets. Ignoring them could kill you!
Not too many years ago a small airliner crashed into the sea, broke up and sank. Passengers had been advised during their pre-flight safety briefing that in the event of a water landing they should put their lifejackets on but not inflate them until they were in the water and well clear of the plane. This message was repeated when the emergency was declared, but a lot of passengers took one look at the water beneath them and inflated their lifejackets while still strapped in their seats. When the aircraft began sinking, fewer than half of the passengers managed to get out even though it was so close they could almost have walked to shore. They drowned because they inflated their lifejackets and were so cumbersome that they were unable to escape from the sinking aircraft. Those who made it outside and inflated their lifejackets as instructed were rescued.